skandar keynes

Skandar Keynes: Week 8

In his final column, Skandar Keynes considers his image as hapless foreigner in the Lebanese ranks.

arabic beqaa valley Cambridge University lebanon Narnia Pembroke persian Skandar Keynes year abroad

skandar2In the UK, I get mixed reactions when I tell people that I study Arabic and Persian at Cambridge – ranging from respect from those who don’t realise how little demand there is for non-European language courses, to downright abuse for being part of an elitist club of aristocratic toffs.

At first, people In my little Lebanese mountain village struggle to pronounce Cambridge, and then it’s swiftly forgotten. Instead they come to know me as the strange, quiet foreigner that, for some bizarre reason, has entered their midst, declaring that he wants to learn Arabic from them.

I’ve gone from reading books with stuffy titles and pretentious phraseology (I’m looking at you, Anthropology of the Middle East), writing long winding essays about stupidly obscure topics and then arguing over them with world experts, to being the village idiot.

Now, I silently listen in on conversations, often not understanding what an earth is going on around me. I stammer out disjointed answers in my broken Arabic, often to questions that weren’t even asked. I walk around pointing at objects, asking how to spell the most quotidian words for my little red vocab book.

The exact extent of my stupidity is even a recurrent point of conversation. Some defend me, pointing out that Arabic is a difficult language, and the fact that I am able to survive at all after only two years is no small feat. The less compassionate – or perhaps those who reckon I understand less of what they say with their unbridled tongues – claim that with two years of study, they could have put in a better effort than this pasty mute standing before them.

Sometimes they test my inability, seeing how much they can curse me in Arabic before I realise what’s going on (knowing what kis immak means is really helpful here).

But, despite being on the receiving end of a healthy humbling, I shall not be disheartened. Indeed, my little red book is slowly but surely filling up, and I’m getting better at the game, ‘see how long we can swear at the idiot before he realises’. The other day I even managed to convince a rather patient man in Arabic that the Queen was not behind a conspiracy to kill Princess Diana – or so I hope I did.

I’m also coming to enjoy the swearing. The Lebanese, it seems, have a particularly flowery imagination and refined taste when it comes to cursing. For example, an Englishman could never have thought up, “I wish it would rain dicks so I could hang your mother’s pussy out the window.”

And, upon reflection, I’d rather be known as the village idiot than Edmund…